Why have the U.S. News "America's Best Colleges" rankings become a prominent part of the American higher education landscape? Kevin Carey, policy director for Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington, tries to answer that question in his commentary called "College Rankings Will Never Die," which appeared in the Brainstorm blog in the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Carey's thesis is that the process of choosing the right college is becoming an ever more complex decision given the amount of information that high school students and their parents need to digest. Colleges themselves have not established easy-to-understand measures of academic quality, so the creators of college rankings have successfully filled this information gap for consumers.
Carey explains why millions of people from around the world have turned to college rankings as one means to help them select the appropriate college for their needs:
"The choices are so many and the institutions themselves are so complex that there is simply no practical way for time and resource-limited individuals (or foreign ministries of education) to gather complete information about every possible choice. It can't be done. So they'll rely on some other, larger, self-proclaimed expert institution with greater resources to do it for them. And that gives the self-proclaimed expert, the evaluator, the "ranker," enormous leverage in defining the terms of quality in higher education and as such the incentives under which decisions are made. Things are only going to keep moving in this direction—more mobility, more information, more choices, more institutions or higher-education providers, more people all over the world having to make choices about postsecondary education and seeking guidance and interpretation to do so. Colleges can cede that responsibility and thus, control over their destiny, to for-profit newsmagazines. Or they can come together and seize that power back by defining and standing behind rankings of their own. And yes, it has to be a ranking, or some kind of process where institutions are compared to one another in a transparent, common way, a process that facilitates choice given time and resource constraints."
The bottom line: College rankings have filled the information void. However, U.S. News believes that college rankings should be used as only one tool in the college application process, not as the sole basis for deciding to go to one school over another. U.S. News stresses that in order to make the best college choice, students and their parents should consider other key factors, such as costs, location, financial aid availability, academic course offerings, activities, size, faculty, alumni network, facilities, placement success of graduates, impressions from a visit to the school, and input from counselors.